Splinter Cell: Blacklist game director, Patrick Redding, has had an interesting chat with Sneaky Bastards about the challenges of realising believable stealth systems in a game that sets out to be as much about action as staying hidden. Redding has gone back to early Splinter Cells to learn a few key lessons.
"The super fragile, brittle, insta-fail model where one tiny degree off and you've got to go back to the checkpoint – that's punishing, that's abusive, it's not an accessible mode of stealth. Even for the people that love stealth games," he says.
The answer, according to the Blacklist team, is an analogue AI system capable of expressing more complex reactions than the once-typical binary AI states of "I'm bored" and "kill Fisher!"
"We've introduced new archetypes and a whole new suite of behaviours so that even in situations that require the player to go undetected – and those moments exist in our game – we're doing it in a way where, if the player starts to screw up, they can salvage the situation. They can save the day, and silence whoever they're dealing with, and get back to the stealth."
Letting the player know when they're hidden and visible is another common design challenge for stealth game developers. Splinter Cell: Conviction would drain all of the colour from the screen whenever Sam was out of view. Blacklist will drop the light and shade effect in favour of a more refined visual change that will hide less of the world.
"The light and shadow systems are still there. We all felt that the black and white filter was very jarring, and it meant that this very nice-looking game was masked for a good chunk of the time. So, instead, we've gone with something that's much more familiar to players who've played Double Agent, which is the idea of the light meter on the back."
"We're using our whole 'in the lens' visual design style, where we imagine that there's a lens between the player and everything in the game – including the HUD elements. When we see light and weather effects and atmospheric effects, that's going to alter the way the HUD looks, it alters the way Sam looks, it alters the amount of lens flare coming off of things. When he's in the shadows, the lighting on his suit is very specific and distinctive, so you can tell that you're in a stealth mode, but we're actually relying more on the player's own perceptions."
Sam's signature goggles will also play an important role in giving players the situational awareness to adopt stealthy routes and stay hidden. Redding mentions that Sam will be able to access a range of upgrades for his gadgets. "We have an entire economy system that is shared across all of the game modes," Redding explains. "Whether it's singleplayer, co-op or Spies versus Mercs, and a customisation system for all of the weapons and all of the gadgets and even the suit itself that's shared across all of those modes.
"What that means is that the vision systems are things that are being upgraded. You're starting out with one set of goggles, but you're able to constantly refine and add new layers to it as you wish that are going to support a particular style of gameplay."
For more on Splinter Cell: Blacklist, check out the E3 2012 trailers . How will you play Sam, stealthy or shooty?